First it was Doodle Jump. Then Dots. And now — will it never end? — Flappy Bird.
So many of the games that we download on our smartphones are a waste of time, but we can’t seem to stop playing them. My current high score on the late, lamented Flappy Bird is three. After weeks of tap-tap-tapping to keep that stupid little bird flying. Three.
Why do we keep falling for these things?
The answer to that question just might be found in, of all places, a medical laboratory at the University of California, San Francisco. Researchers there are trying to figure out what makes games addictive — and how we might use video games to make our minds stronger, faster and healthier.
Using neuroimaging techniques, researchers are peering into gamers’ heads, hoping that the data they collect will help them make video games that change as you play, getting easier or harder, depending on your performance. The idea is to keep people at the addiction point. You know, that infuriating flap-flap-flap zone.
From there, they say, the possibilities seem limitless. One day, we might develop games to treat depression or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Or games that rewire our brains to improve memory and cognitive function. The list could go on and on.
The U.C.S.F. neuroscience research lab looks like an ordinary hospital, with standard-issue linoleum floors and blue walls. But peer into one of the examination rooms, and you’ll see something unexpected: brain scanners, flat-screen televisions and video game consoles.
“By scanning the brain during game play, we are hoping to discover the areas of your brain that are weak, and then guide a more powerful experience to help improve how your brain works,” said Dr. Adam Gazzaley, associate professor and director of the university’s Neuroscience Imaging Center.
So where exactly is that addiction point? In the case of Flappy Bird, if you ask Dong Nguyen, its programmer, it was the entire game. He said last week that he pulled the game from the App Store because it was “an addictive product.” Tetris, the tile-stacking puzzle that came out in 1984, is built in the same way — hence, 30 years later, people are still trying to beat it. (My high score on Tetris is 126.)
Sometimes, games just seem unwinnable. Turns out, that helps explain why we keep playing them and try so hard to win.
“With these types of games — and with most addictive games — as we play them, we’re trying to fix something,” said Ian Bogost, a video game designer, critic and professor of interactive computing at Georgia Institute of Technology. “We’re saying to ourselves: ‘If I can just get this bird past these pipes, I’ll fix it. I’ll save that little bird, and everything will be O.K. in the world.’ ”
If only life were that simple.
Mr. Bogost said game-makers capitalize on our desire to “fix it” by offering us ways to buy ourselves out of seemingly intractable problems. In Candy Crush, for example, you can buy more lives; in Dots, you can buy more time.
Casinos mastered the art of the game long ago. We know the odds are against us, but we play anyway. In Las Vegas and elsewhere, the slot machines beckon with their bright lights and the promise of hitting that elusive jackpot. The temperature is kept cool. There are no clocks to remind us that it’s getting late. Drinks are free.
At U.C.S.F., researchers believe they can make games that do good, not drive us insane, while we try to win. Last year, Dr. Gazzaley’s lab worked with developers to create NeuroRacer, a relatively simple video game where players drive and try to identify specific road signs that pop up on the screen, while ignoring other signs deemed irrelevant. Older adults who played the car game subsequently performed better at memory and attention tests in the real world.
Other research has found that games can help our brains in innumerable ways.
Daphné Bavelier, a neuroscientist with the University of Rochester, found that people who play first-person shooter video games for two weeks can improve visual attention, mental reasoning and decision-making skills. A 2007 study by Iowa State University psychologists compared surgeons who played video games to those who didn’t and found that, during laparoscopic surgeries, the gamers were 27 percent faster and made 37 percent fewer mistakes than nongamers. And decades of research around Tetris has shown that playing it for extended periods may increase memory and cognitive skills.
Dr. Gazzaley warns that all games are not created equal. “There was a lot of buzz saying crossword puzzles were good for you, but researchers have found that the act of searching your memory for esoteric pieces of trivia might not help people’s brains in the slightest,” he said.
For now, the goal is to figure out what makes a game addictive on a neurological level, then to couple this with brain research showing how play can improve the mind.
“We want our games to be engaging and immersive, and to help people,” said Dr. Gazzaley. “You could imagine five years from now that you go to the doctor with a problem and he prescribes an F.D.A.-approved video game for you to download and play for two weeks.”
Let’s just hope that game isn’t Flappy Bird.